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County Attorney: Arizona Leads the Way in Criminal Justice Reform – Others are not so sure

In a December opinion piece in the Arizona Capitol Times, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery claims that “Arizona leads in criminal justice reform.” We’re not exactly who Bill thinks we’re leading, but he does point to several items he says support his position. However, before we go into the specifics, we should tell you that Arizona ranks fourth among all the states in the nation when it comes to the percentage of the population behind bars.

In any event, Bill Montgomery tells us that he’s got backup for his claim that Arizona is leading the way in criminal justice reform. Here are his arguing points:

  • Arizona passed legislation in 1996 avoiding prison in many first-time and second-time small drug possession/use cases.
  • Deferred prosecution has been expanded, including increased treatment opportunities for substance abuse.
  • Arizona’s crime rate, overall, is the lowest it’s been since 1963.

In response to Montgomery’s statements, Arizona House Member (and member of the House Judiciary Committee) Kirsten Engel wrote an opinion in which she says Arizona “lags” the nation in criminal justice reform. Engel first cites studies which demonstrate that increased incarceration does not lead to a reduction in violent crime. She goes on to note that 19 states, including several Arizona neighbors (Utah, Colorado and Nevada), have decreased the rates of both imprisonment and crime at the same time. They did so, she states, by use of crime prevention, alternatives to incarceration, and community correction (including probation). Finally, Engel raises an important, and we think definitive, point: Over the last ten years, the incarceration rate nationally has declined by 6%. At the same time, the incarceration rate in Arizona has mushroomed by 10%.

In addition to burdening the system for what many believe is no good reason, we should also tell you that Arizona spends over 10% of its annual budget on the prison system. And notwithstanding much talk about offering alternative sentences for substance abusers, drug possession accounts for 20% of Arizona’s prison population.

Other states have dealt successfully with the issue by decreasing the lengths of sentences. Maybe its time Arizona legislators should take a look at the issue, particularly in light of evidence that incarceration does not appear to have an appreciable effect on the rate of violent crime.

The Feldman Law Firm PLLC
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Phoenix, AZ 85004
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